Promised Land (Gus Van Sant – USA/United Arab Emirates) 106 minutes
For a good director, Gus Van Sant has made quite a few bad films in his time; nonetheless, all his films, from the resolutely commercial (Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester) to the experimental (Gerry, his frame-by-frame Psycho remake), both bad and good, are recognisably his. Each one bears the indelible stamp of a Gus Van Sant film. Van Sant’s last, the teenage cancer drama Restless, a tiresome stew of sentimentalism and quirkiness, brought to an end a run of excellent films but he was always likely to bounce back before too long.
Promised Land sees him return to the political activist genre that he first touched on in Milk, though this time the setting – rural Pennsylvania – is not so obvious for one of his films. It also reunites him with Matt Damon, who wrote and acted in the two films that represent the extremes of Van Sant’s work, Good Will Hunting and Gerry. Damon also contributes the screenplay here (based on an idea by Dave Eggers) and produces along with John Krasinski (who also stars, as the environmentalist activist Dustin Noble). The resulting film is a surprisingly robust if flawed drama about moral scruples and the strains of professional life.
Damon is Steve Butler, a young salesman for energy giant Global, who is a dab hand at convincing struggling farming communities to sell up their land for oil exploration (using the now notorious hydraulic fracturing method). When about to be promoted to an executive position at the beginning of the film, he explains his secret as being able to empathise with his prey, coming as he does from a similar rural background. Arriving in a small town with his sales partner Sue Thomason (Frances McDorman) however, he comes up against unexpected resistance, in the form of a science teacher and retired aviation engineer played by Hal Holbrook. Holbrook is then approached by Dustin Noble, an unknown environmental activist who is every bit Butler’s match, using fair means and foul to turn the townspeople against the buy-out bid.
The film is quite good early on in setting up the debate on fracking, and Butler is an impressively delineated figure of moral ambiguity. Krasinski is a rather alarmingly friendly idealist who resists corruption by his corporate adversaries while not being above delivering a few underhanded blows himself. The problem is the film does not really convince in the depiction of the community turning against the fracking. Their reaction is far too pavlovian and the implication is the townspeople are far too dim-witted to be capable of making an informed decision on their own. Butler’s efforts to win them over with a cattle fair is also a little crude and it betrays Damon and Krasinski’s origins as city boys. Even the roughest yokel is more sophisticated than that.
Ultimately Promised Land (a nifty title which infers something very different from its Biblical connotation) is a political sports movie like Milk but there is no clear-cut victory for anyone (the film, unlike many of this sort, is not based on any particular real-life case). Damon, a limited but efficient actor, is good in a role in which we find an echo of his younger Will Hunting (McDormand’s Sue is similarly cut from the same cloth as her Marge Gunderson in Fargo). Not surprisingly, Promised Land has been the target of public relations campaigns on behalf of fracking companies. I wonder if anyone pointed out the dubiousness of the oil-rich United Arab Emirates providing financial backing for the film, something that gives the film a strange additional flavour?